New Year’s Poem


Dec 29, 2015

Happy New Year! Jaku suggested we follow the Japanese custom of writing a death poem on New Year’s and read them during our New Year’s Eve celebration at Ocean Gate Zendo.

Here’s what Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen, wrote as he was nearing his death:

For fifty-four years*

Following the way of heaven;

Now leaping beyond,

Shattering every barrier,

Hah! To cast off all attachments,

While still alive, plunging into the Yellow Springs.**

* In Japan, you are 1 year old upon birth.

**Yellow Springs is the realm of the dead.

Shinshu’s Commentary:

What can we say? How do we express our wisdom? A death poem puts it all together, as we understand it just now.

Dogen wrote in Shoji (Birth and Death) Shobogenzo, “Just understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. There is nothing such as birth and death to be avoided, there is nothing such as nirvana to be sought. Only when you realize this are you free from birth and death.”

We are free from birth and death when we let go of our ideas about birth and death. When we are fully living our life in its entirety we are “just this” with no ideas about birth and death. We are fully responding to what is. This full response includes birth-and-death as well as birth and death. It includes everything-everybody. If nothing is left out and we can face that with equanimity this is nirvana. This does not mean that we will feel no pain, or sorrow or loss. The mind of Buddha includes it all and you are Buddha-nature-buddha-mind. So, what are we rejecting or avoiding? Can we even reject or avoid this suffering? Dogen taught that nirvana is moving through suffering, transforming suffering which only comes by acknowledging suffering. Birth and death are not dichotomous. For this reason Dogen wrote, “While still alive, plunging into the Yellow Springs.” Like the fish leaping clear of the water and then splashing down again, we are supported by the totality of our life. In this year and the next, “birth-and-death is nirvana.”

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